“I’m lonely and in a difficult situation.” So read the suicide note of 23-year-old South Korean pop star Kim Ji-Hoo, who hanged himself on 6 October 2008, less than six months after coming out as gay on a TV series exploring the lives of LGBT Koreans. Three days earlier, in her Seoul apartment, 26-year-old transgender entertainer Jang Chae-won ended her life the same way. Neither explicitly blamed their suicides on anti-LGBT discrimination – unlike gay writer and activist Yun Hyon-seok, who hanged himself in 2003 at the tender age of 18, leaving behind a note decrying attitudes to homosexuals in South Korean society.
In the immediate aftermath of Kim Ji-Hoo’s suicide, the South Korean police went as far as to state that “his suicide reflects public prejudice toward gay people and their difficulty in succeeding in the entertainment industry”. His coming-out hadn’t gone down well. “Following the announcement of his sexual orientation, Kim’s management agency did not renew his contract and many TV programs and fashion shows cancelled his appearances,” noted the Korea Times after his death. “His blog was bombarded with numerous messages denouncing his sexual orientation.” Kim’s mother told police he “underwent many professional and personal difficulties following his coming-out”. To date, the country of 50 million people, generally thought of as the most modern and Western country in Asia alongside Japan, has only a minuscule number of LGBT public figures. Even South Korea’s hugely successful K-pop industry – a dayglo money machine notable for its frequent play with androgyny and preponderance of effeminate male singers – has no openly gay performers. Homosexuality is taboo. When Korean boyband SHINee (whose song Lucifer was covered by Jelena Karleuša in 2011) were invited to filmmaker Kim Jho Kwang-soo’s symbolic wedding to his male fiancé in 2013, their manager declined the invitation on their behalf.
If K-pop isn’t ready for gay performers, what then for Serbia’s turbofolk? It isn’t either, for analogous reasons – any male singer who publicly declared a gay identity in this culturally conservative country, even more Orthodox than South Korea is Catholic, would likely meet with a similar level of public opprobrium. So coming out in a vacuum, when the surrounding culture isn’t ready, isn’t the answer, just as pride parades aren’t necessarily effective or culturally appropriate when transplanted out of their original American context into countries where parades are more associated with ideological mobilization or occupying armies. Placing the onus on celebrities to “come out” – as we’re so quick to demand in the West when we suspect a public figure might not be heterosexual, letting our own sense of entitlement trump their right to privacy in our thirst to know – gets no-one anywhere in countries where the majority of people are ill-informed on LGBT issues, don’t have a clear picture of what it actually means for someone to be gay, and are liable to confuse homosexuality with transsexualism, cross-dressing, paedophilia and even bestiality. One or two singers can’t change a culture, and the personal price would be too high. From a Western perspective, it’s easy to point a finger at Serbia’s pop-folk industry and call it hypocritical and even regressive because for all its queer aesthetic elements, there are no openly gay performers (apart from drag queen Boki 13, pictured above) – but would you want to be the first?
Even in Germany, typically thought of as a very gay-friendly country, many high-profile male TV presenters remain firmly yet awkwardly in the closet – a cultural difference to nearby countries like the UK, Netherlands and Switzerland, where so many of the popular figures people see on TV every day are openly gay or lesbian that it’s easy to lose track. Having an LGBT identity in German politics seems to be no problem at any level, from local to national, but the entertainment world is a very different story: many of the few German celebrities who are openly gay were forcibly outed (comedian Hape Kerkeling, entertainer Alfred Biolek, newsreader Wilhelm Wieben), while other prominent public figures kept their sexuality secret during their lifetime and were only outed posthumously (fashion designer Rudolph Moshammer, actor Walter Sedlmayer, singer Rex Gildo). Again, this comes down to cultural and historical factors such as the high value placed on privacy in Germany, the strong belief in separation of work and home life, the still-prominent societal role played by the church, more patriarchal traditions and structures than most other Western European countries, and the reluctance of many who grew up in East Germany’s surveillance state to unnecessarily disclose intimate personal information to the public.
In May this year, in response to Conchita Wurst’s Eurovision victory, German factual TV channel N24 ran a talkshow in which guests debated the question “Gays: Normal or perverse?”. When gay CDU politician Jens Spahn appeared on a widely-criticized talkshow on Germany’s flagship public TV channel Das Erste in February, he was captioned onscreen as an “avowed homosexual”. And when in January 2014, Thomas Hitzlsperger became the first (former) Premier League footballer to come out, Germany’s biggest-selling tabloid Bild accompanied the story with a feature entitled “Suddenly gay! How can I tell?”, aimed at male readers concerned they might wake up gay without warning. (If only it worked like that.) If this is the situation in supposedly enlightened Germany, a veritable beacon of democracy and Western values, how can we expect public figures in more conservative countries still – such as those of the Balkans – to throw caution to the wind, declare a gay identity and bear the brunt of ignorant public reaction, when both their material livelihood and physical and mental wellbeing depend on the maintenance of a heterosexual facade? Or to put it another way: if Sean Hayes preferred to stay in the closet for the entire 8 years he played the flamboyant Jack on Will and Grace, why should gay turbofolk singers be expected to out themselves?
“Despite a number of video spots and lyrics which contain some iconographic elements of gay culture, or that play with homoerotic signifiers, the fact is that no turbo-folk performer ever in Serbia declared themselves gay in public,” writes Marija Grujić in her 2009 PhD thesis Community and the Popular: Women, Nation and Turbo-Folk in Post-Yugoslav Serbia. “On the contrary, there has been a constant emphasis on the heterosexual relationship as the only mode of partnership in all contents related to turbo-folk. There have been a few exceptions in terms of lyrics […] but none of them promoted openly any idea of gay sexual identity.” As a gay consumer of turbofolk, I’m fine with that (although the genre has arguably queered considerably in the 5 years since Grujić’s dissertation) – because it’s all about the subtext, about different readings for different audiences; because self-preservation is important; and because more often than not, life is about compromise and finding the solution that works best for the situation you’re in. As far as the post-Yugoslav estrada scene is concerned, if notionally identifying as heterosexual, appearing with decoy girlfriends in the press and flirting with female love interests in music videos is what it takes for gay male singers to make a living, more power to them. Gay creative talent involved in the production of turbofolk can still subvert heteronormativity and speak to a gay audience through subtext without a performer having to take the very big and risky step of outing themselves. As Marijana Mitrović states in her 2011 paper The “Unbearable Lightness” (of the Subversion) of Nationalism: Bodies on Estrada in Postsocialist Serbia, “the space of media construction of popular music [in Serbia] is becoming increasingly gender-inclusive, inducing new gender models that could not be called crypto-feministic, for example, but that certainly serve to break the matrix of the negation of homosexuality, and political engagement for its acceptance.”
Could turbofolk indeed act to promote acceptance of gay relationships if it continues to develop on its present course? Entertainment media and popular culture have the power to mould hearts and minds, to reach and engage ordinary people in their homes, in a way that politicians and even laws often struggle to achieve. In an ideal world, there’s nothing I’d love more than for a turbofolk singer to feel able to come out and continue to be successful, with minimal backlash. It’d be a watershed moment that would change the climate and open the door for others by prompting people with unquestioned, environmentally-inherited anti-gay attitudes to reconceptualize homosexuality. To many people in conservative societies, and even in liberal Western ones where gay people have legal rights and people are supposedly enlightened on LGBT issues, homosexuals are an Other, occupying a status almost as mythological boogeymen not to be spoken of except in jokes or insults – the idea that a friend, neighbour, colleague or public figure could be “one of them” is inconceivable. Yet the beloved celebrities and trusted media figures we invite into our living rooms every time we switch on the TV or radio, go online or open Grand Revija are “one of us”, part of the family. So when a celebrity comes out, something has to give: either their declaration of gay identity otherizes them, resulting in their expulsion from “our” society, as in the case of the South Korean celebrities discussed above, or if we want to keep thinking of our favourite media personalities as friends and role models, people whose voices and two-dimensional avatars we’re happy to let into our homes, we have to rethink and broaden our definition of “us”.
But as Serbia’s pop and pop-folk industry becomes ever more progressive while the country’s politics since 2012 become less so, are the two on collision course? Turbofolk was born under Milošević and ideologically instrumentalized by his regime; accordingly, the biggest star of this first wave of the genre married a nationalist paramilitary commander and was herself later convicted of embezzlement and illegal arms possession. As Serbia left behind 90s nationalism and became a democratic country in the 2000s, the genre shook off its baggage and blossomed on its own terms; the figurehead of this second incarnation of turbofolk was a politically outspoken democrat and self-described atheist and “human rights activist” who used her fame to promote progressive attitudes. Now, with the country back in the hands of one of Milošević’s key ministers and again steering an increasingly illiberal course, what does this hold for the country, and for the genre?
While there’s no sign of a broader trend as yet, there are a couple of recent, eyebrow-raising videos that – depending on how things develop – will either be remembered as isolated curios harking back to the 1990s or as early heralds of a thematic return to nationalism. In the military-styled video for 2013’s Maksimalno moj, directed by Miloš Nadaždin, singer Dijana Janković stands, sporting a memorable combo of platform boots and giant crucifix earrings, atop a large military aircraft backed by 4 hunky dancers in camouflage gear. This confluence of religious and military signifiers is mild, however, compared to the expressly militaristic, bullet- and explosion-riddled video for Amadeus Band’s Moja Zemlja, also from 2013. Made with the full cooperation of the Serbian government’s armed police force and featuring almost as much military hardware as Vojna Parada, it’s a shocking, state-sponsored religio-nationalist war-porn fantasy set to a sentimentalized blend of patriotic lyrics, Orthodox liturgical chants and tinny synths.
Whether or not the genre stays progressive going forward, when expecting gay celebrities to come out, we should remember that being in the public eye is often not a choice in itself, but something that automatically comes with a high level of professional achievement in certain fields, like sports, politics, drama and music. When Tom Daley or Tom Luchsinger is in the pool, Marco Schreyl or Jochen Schropp hosting a German TV show, or a closeted pop-folk singer performing a cheerful number on Balkan television, it may not look much like work for those of us used to daily drudgery, but it is – and people have the right to privacy in the workplace, even if that workplace is the public sphere. According to a survey published last year by Human Rights Campaign, America’s largest civil rights advocacy group, only 7% of LGBT employees aged 16-24 in the US are out at work, and only 32% of 35-44-year-olds. (Unsurprising in a country where people can be fired for being gay in 29 of 52 states.) In the UK, a 2006 study by gay marketing firm Out Now Consulting found that almost half of respondents were not out in the workplace, despite full anti-discrimination legislation having been enacted some years earlier. Laws can’t change culture overnight, and people have good reason to keep their sexual orientation private. For many, the closet is a vital safe space – and trying to force people out of it, out of a misguided belief in openness for openness’s sake and that the closet is always bad for the person concerned – can be damaging and counterproductive. “I just can’t fathom how somebody that has gone through the same thing can so easily forget how hugely scary coming out is,” writes James Moore in this superb piece on the harm caused by trying to push people out of the closet too soon.
“So often we are made to feel that it is necessary to be ‘out,’ and that anything less is cowardice,” protests Helen McDonald in this wonderful article on her experiences as a queer woman of colour. “But, often times, it takes strength to stay in. [We] need to make choices in the name of our self-preservation; acknowledging that our needs can take precedence over some form of social martyrdom is radical. Moreover, the closet isn’t always just a temporary hideout. Sometimes it has to serve as a home and it’s okay to pride yourself in your abode. […] The rarely spoken truth about the closet is that it is not a prison by default. You can have your great queertastic romance without running through the streets head to toe in rainbows […]. You can look at the beauty and resilience within you without having to expose every bit of yourself to the world. You can be proud, even if the whole world does not know. […] You do not owe anyone a coming out speech. The only person you’re obligated to is you.”
The default modern Western position of “everybody out” is one reactive to a past where being out wasn’t an option and the closet was something obligatory and forced on people, but it’s also one of privilege. Many people, while living a gay life in private and being out to some or all of their friends, family and colleagues, simply aren’t in a position to fly a rainbow flag to the world and shouldn’t be condemned for not doing so. As long as gay people are out to themselves, and don’t try and deceive themselves and others by conducting doomed relationships with the opposite sex – something that’s incredibly destructive to the naïve partner and children and is still too commonplace in even the most liberal countries where gay people have full legal equality, let alone in more conservative, homosocial societies where it remains the norm, and where young men are often tacitly permitted to have a gay old time for a few years in their youth as long as they dutifully settle down with a woman and produce offspring when expected – that’s all that matters.